Book Review: Leave Me

Leave Me

For every woman who has ever fantasized about driving past her exit on the highway instead of going home to make dinner, for every woman who has ever dreamed of boarding a train to a place where no one needs constant attention–meet Maribeth Klein. A harried working mother who’s so busy taking care of her husband and twins, she doesn’t even realize she’s had a heart attack.

Afterward, surprised to discover that her recuperation seems to be an imposition on those who rely on her, Maribeth does the unthinkable: She packs a bag and leaves. But, as is so often the case, once we get to where we’re going, we see our lives from a different perspective. Far from the demands of family and career and with the help of liberating new friendships, Maribeth is finally able to own up to secrets she has been keeping from those she loves and from herself.

With big-hearted characters who stumble and trip, grow and forgive, Leave Me is about facing our fears. Gayle Forman, a dazzling observer of human nature, has written an irresistible novel that confronts the ambivalence of modern motherhood head-on.

This is going to be a tough one to review. On the one hand, I love Gayle Forman’s writing. You should see my Kindle — section after section of highlighting all my favorite little paragraphs and fabulous wording. On the other hand… I pretty much didn’t buy the premise for a second.

Maribeth is in her early forties, raising twins, a busy New York career woman. Her best friend Elizabeth is also her boss, and lately Maribeth feels like their friendship has been lost to their working relationship. Life is busy, busy, busy — and even as she’s in the hospital getting checked out after her initial chest pains, it’s still on Maribeth’s shoulders to plan dinner and arrange the family’s social obligations.

After emergency open-heart surgery, Maribeth is back home with her family — but it’s still all too much. She’s the planner, the organizer, the worrier, the arranger. She’s the key breadwinner. Her husband is pretty laid back, and does his work out of passion, not in pursuit of a dollar. Even in convalescence, the pressure on Maribeth never ends, and it seems like everyone is just waiting for her to snap back into her normal role.

And so, three week after surgery, Maribeth leaves a note and disappears, resurfacing in Pittsburgh one train ride later, with wads of cash in her pocket and a brand new clean slate. She rents an apartment — in cash — under an altered version of her name, finds a new cardiologist — who accepts cash — and sets about living a simple, unencumbered, no responsibilities kind of life.

There’s a darker, more secret reason for Maribeth’s flight as well. She’s adopted, but has never known anything about her birth mother. Now, as she deals with her health issues and worries about what sort of mother she is, she’s consumed by the need to find out more about her own origins. She knows that she was born in Pittsburgh, so this is where she’ll start her search.

That’s the basic idea. Along the way, Maribeth befriends the young roommates who live in her building, as well as an older women who helps people find their birth parents and even her new cardiologist, a man with his own secret and painful past. For the first time in a long time, Maribeth makes friends who have no strings attached — no PTA or twins groups or work colleagues — just people she enjoys spending time with. She relaxes. She starts to exercise and eat better. She is unplugged — just a burner cell phone, no email, no laptop, no internet. It’s great — and yet, she misses her family, and starts a collection of unsent letters to her children.

So, what did I enjoy about this book? Well, Gayle Forman can write, that’s for sure. The characters are well-defined and quirky, clearly individuals rather than standard cookie cutter types. While there’s emotion and sorrow in Leave Me, there are also plenty of light, funny moments. Maribeth’s stress and fears are instantly relateable, and it’s no surprise that her crazy, high-pressure life leaves her in such dire straits, health-wise.

I tore through Leave Me in about two days. It’s eminently readable, super fast and engaging, and held my interest even when my body was telling me to put down my Kindle and just go to sleep.

But as I said, it’s not all a positive for me. As entertained as I was by much of the story, I just couldn’t buy it. Why would Maribeth see leaving her children as her best and only option? How could she leave and never even call? And how on earth was her husband so understanding and supportive when they finally did start emailing and speaking a month later? I’m sorry, but I think 99.9% of spouses left in that kind of situation would be absolutely furious, not conciliatory and reminiscing about the early days when they fell in love.

I mean, for goddess’s sake (just kidding, I’m not religious or pagan or anything other than a geek), she completely dropped out of communication less than a month after having open-heart surgery! For all her family knew, she could be dead in a ditch somewhere.

I just kept thinking — not cool, lady. Not cool. At least let someone know you’re alive.

A smaller quibble is just how easily her life worked in Pittsburgh. She came armed with loads of cash (ah, privilege!), but basically showed up empty-handed in a strange town — and found neighbors who took to her immediately and wanted to help her, a doctor who wanted to treat her when no one else would look past her unwillingness to share any information about her identity (or even health insurance), and a new friend who’s able to unlock all of the secrets about her birth mother (and teach her to swim). She didn’t encounter hostility, or mean people, or really, even indifference. It’s a nice little fairy tale, I suppose, to think that you can show up in a new city like that and find a life, but real? No.

On top of which, by the time she goes home months later, nothing has actually changed in terms of their stressful life. I mean yes, supposedly her husband and friend/boss are ready to be more supportive and are full of warm fuzzies, but she’s still going back to a super stressful Manhattan life that they can’t really afford, where she may or may not still have a job, and where they’re constantly under pressure. So even though she’s come to some big realizations about herself, what will actually be different when she gets back?

So yeah, despite loving the writing and feeling very amused and engaged by the book, some little part of my brain was sitting to the side judging and doubting, and that kept me just distant enough to feel like the plot doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

Should you read the book? Well, if you enjoy contemporary adult fiction, modern urban characters, and don’t mind pieces that could (or should) never happen in real life, then yes! You won’t be bored.

Meanwhile, I’ll just add that I’ve read four young adult books by Gayle Forman, and thought they were all great. (I especially loved Just One Day and Just One Year). So I was really excited to hear that the author would be releasing her first book for adults, Leave Me. And even though I don’t consider Leave Me a complete success, I did enjoy reading it and hope that she continues writing for adults. I’d love to see what she comes up with next!

I’ll leave you with a selection of some of my favorite passages from Leave Me:

She looked at the label on her yogurt. Was it full-fat yogurt? Had she been eating full-fat yogurt all this time? She scanned the package for the words, full fat, or whole milk, some kind of ominous cigarette-label warning that the contents might cause death. But she found nothing like that. The label only said it was French.

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Her birth mother had always been a shadowy, abstract figure. Maybe she was out there, maybe she wasn’t, but there was no way of knowing so why bother obsessing about it. It was not unlike how Maribeth felt about God. She supposed this made her birth-mother agnostic.

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Sometimes she really did think her heart no longer functioned. Sure, the muscle beat fine, but the feeling part of it was completely damaged.

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But it was the swimming pool in the basement that called to her. She wasn’t sure why but it felt like this, more than an elliptical machine or a vinyasa class, would ease the itchiness that was growing inside of her. Swimming felt new. Or maybe it was because she was sinking and wanted to see whether, if forced to, she might swim.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Leave Me
Author: Gayle Forman
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication date: September 6, 2016
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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